We hung out with S&F co-founders Nick Gluzdov and Irina Abramson to find out more about what makes his startup tick. In an age of marketing spin, this interview is a refreshing blast of honesty, with challenges and celebrations, small wins and epic fails — a story about going from Zero to One.
Company Profile: Technology solutions through collaboration, not outsourcing.
We allow our clients to be more efficient and effective by crafting elegant digital solutions to their biggest business challenges. At the same time, we are an extension of your team, which means we are much more than just an outsourced tech firm. Our business is technology, but our passions are people, connection, and community.
Speed & Function — Philadelphia-based company
Specialization — сustom software with a human-centric focus
Founded — in 2006
Founders — Nick Gluzdov and Irina Ambranson
How We Began?
I must warn you that it’s not glorious. Speed & Function’s story does not inspire in a Disneyesque kind of way but it has been an interesting adventure. I grew up in a family of artists in Kyiv. So, I'm not afraid to start out with a blank canvas, to create from nothing or come up with something completely out of thin air. I have a lot of creative energy, a fire that has been with me since my early childhood. And this drive has always pushed me to create something. It was precisely this feeling that pressed me to achieve one of my earliest aspirations, that of building a company.
2001: First try
My first attempt at my dream was back in 2001. But I didn't succeed with that one. As the song goes, I was young and foolish, meaning I had neither business connections nor a client pool. This is where most people go wrong in the entrepreneurial game. They fail once and never try again. Or worse, they fail and never learn from their failures. But as for me, I knew I had to get back on my feet. I didn’t rush into my second venture but took some time to learn more about how I might do it better.
2006: Second try
My wife, Irina, and I registered our second company in 2006, 5 years after the first one. In those days I was a web designer, doing both design and coding, working full-time for a large company located in Philadelphia. I was paid what I considered an insane amount of money at that time (in hindsight, a quite modest sum). But I wanted an opportunity to increase my income and to be more in control of the work I did, and how I did it.
And truthfully, I wasn’t a very good employee – my creativity wasn’t well met, and I found myself frequently bored and stifled. But Irina and I had begun a family and we needed someone to care for the children (her) and someone to bring in a steady income (me). So we decided that having a company together, based out of our home, was a great opportunity for both of us.
I was able to work on nights and weekends and whenever I could find time when not at my job, and she was able to work when the kids were sleeping or eating or otherwise occupied. It was the beginning of our collaborative and very harmonious way of working together. I would like to say that my motivation for starting a company was a principled one, but the truth is we needed more money and it was money that was motivating me. This venture wasn’t called Speed & Function at that time. At first it was called gluzdov.com – simply my last name, reflecting that the company did what I did – coding and design.
2007: First clients, first fails
We started out our web studio with just a few working, freelance hands to help and got our first two clients. One of them was Time for Three, a trio of violinists. Our second big project was a sex therapy portal, the first one of its kind at the time. I’d like to say that we succeeded there but we did not. Our biggest mistake was that we underestimated the complexity involved. And without understanding the complexity you’re facing, you can never offer a solution that is going to work.
Yes, we did create the website infrastructure our client asked us for, but the result was so bad they did not use it. The platform itself and the UX were neither clear nor presentable enough. We were embarrassed by this failure and did try to make it right with the clients but my lack of people skills caused that to not go well either. It was really just a failure all around. With this experiential baggage in mind, the team and I had the feeling that we needed to focus more on being better technologists — improving our performance and productivity.
2008: First employee and team growth
I launched the first Speed & Function job post in "Tifaretnik" (an open-source, free speech-absolutist blogging platform for a post-USSR demographic) looking for a coder. Our first full-time hire was Andrey, who lived in Crimea, Ukraine in 2008.
For some time, we underwent an organic growth phase while we were in that small office in Simferopol. Andrey started hiring more people there: coders, DevOps engineers, tech people. A team began forming around him, a team that experienced a slow growth curve but still, the essential part was that we were growing. That was our path for a while – developing, learning, and taking care of every project we were being given.
2014: Office in Montenegro
This slow but steady growth continued for 6 years – a long time! We were going at a business-as-usual pace until 2014, a year which brought up our next milestone. Our mentality was shifting towards our next developmental stage, which wasn’t mirrored in what we had in Simferopol anymore. So, we scouted for fresh locations, and that’s how we opened an office in Montenegro, in the city of Budva. The location just made sense because it covered many of our previous needs regarding talent and practicality.Quite a few team members relocated to Budva from our old office. And we started hiring outside of Simferopol, too. We were getting new hires from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, literally from every corner of Ukraine. But our transition was eventually halted by the Russian takeover of Crimea. We had several valuable people based there, and if they left, Speed & Function would have suffered greatly.
So, we found a way to mediate our new priorities with all our team members by promoting a trust-based, remote-first workspace, quite a pioneering feat for those years. It was a new way of doing things for everyone, but that marked the modus operandi that we’ve kept to this day. We were getting better at managing our employees, and I was getting better at understanding how to work with the human part of a company – the most important and the most complex part.
2016: Omne Solutions
Another milestone, but an unusual one, presented itself in 2016 when Speed & Function bought Omne Solutions’ client list — they were a small American software development company. Our hope was that this acquisition would deepen our inroads with direct clients, specifically in the Mid-Atlantic region where tens of thousands of businesses were headquartered.
With this opportunity, we integrated three new Philadelphians who began engaging in and expanding our business development and sales operations. But we also needed to handle the remaining Omne clients. That proved to be more of a challenge than expected. Their existing businesses and our way of working were not compatible – with one exception, a client who is still with us to this day. What was supposed to be an easy business deal ended up creating a lot of headaches for everyone involved. I found myself unable to manage the complex human relationships on top of the technical and business complexity.
Soon afterwards, I considered this investment my single greatest mistake. But the truth is more complicated, because without this mistake I would not have learned the vital lessons I needed for our next, important level of development.
Employee-client collaboration platform
By this time, 2016, most of our clients were in America yet most of our team was in Eastern Europe. We needed to bring those two worlds closer. We started a work visa program for S&F employees. One of them, Russ Zhurba, came to the U.S. and became the first S&F employee to get an American work visa. After moving, he started working directly with our clients and became a member of the leadership team. (He later moved on to Facebook with our blessing and has his eyes set on Space-X. I’m glad he’s been able to follow his passion and his talent.)
The same year we started implementing more purposeful business practices in our daily routine, by using methodologies such as Agile and Lean. Our org chart also shifted to reflect more business-oriented roles and responsibilities. Lastly, and probably most importantly, we changed our entire positioning angle from being tech-focused and skill-demonstrative to excellence in client collaborations.
This was a big one for me – maybe the big one. For nearly 15 years, I had presumed that being tech-focused was what our clients cared most about since I was – and am – a technologist. But clients didn’t just want a tech fix – they wanted a partner in solving a challenge. They wanted to understand and be part of the solution process. I was finally beginning to understand that from my client’s perspective, hiring a tech company to solve problems and then not fully understanding what was fixed, or why, was far from a satisfying experience. It was like a car mechanic who just gave you a bill but never explained what they had fixed or why it mattered.
So we switched our attention to the client and their intrinsic desires and aspirations rather than their extrinsic needs. We understood that we would never compromise on our quality of work, that our skill set was among the finest in the industry, and that we could solve clients' tech challenges fully – but all of that was a given.
What was needed was a more human connection. We created the Extreme Alignment idea, brought to life through an Elastic Delivery, which was oriented toward the client experience instead of just technical expertise.
2018: Developmental Edge
The end of 2018 marked a turning point worth mentioning. By this point, I knew that I needed a better way to understand and to work with people – both my employees and my clients. I tried a few approaches, like Radical Honesty, that created far more problems than solutions.
But then I met Andy Fleming from Developmental Edge, a partner of Robert Kegan. Kegan is a world-renowned author and a pioneer of developmental psychology out of Harvard. Together, Claire, Andy and I started creating a digital platform known as a Developmental Sprint®. I was responsible for making the Immunity to Change process digital and scalable.
The fascinating thing about it is that through this methodology you go through 4 weeks of rapidly accelerated growth and learn to take obstacles and use them as a way to transform yourself. It's this weirdly scientific approach to something that used to belong in the coaching realm, and it changed everything in my life for the better. It was like I’d finally found the missing piece I’d needed all these years to really make Speed & Function work well. Most importantly, it gave me a place to work on myself when I struggled with my relationships with people – both clients and with employees.
A Developmental Sprint, which we now offer all of our employees, can take almost any problem you’re facing and use it as fuel for transformation. It breaks down the ways we are blind to the problems we’re facing, and helps to show us a clear way out. I know this is kind of vague, but if you’re interested we talk more about this process on our website.
As I said before, I’m a technologist, and this is without question a powerful human technology, one designed to help us to work better, faster, with less conflict and more understanding of one another.
If we are currently working in an outsourcing 1.0 paradigm, we want to understand what outsourcing 2.0 looks like. How do we transform the outsourcing experience so that it can be efficient and cost-effective, personally transformative and rewarding? We know that there are a lot of problems in outsourcing. In some circles, "outsourcing" is even a dirty word. We want to change this idea completely, so that outsourcing can compete with a direct hire – someone trained to be part of the staff, to understand its goals, and to help it meet its mission. We train our staff to act as if they are part of the company that’s hired us – creating collaboration instead of just an outsourced worker. This makes everything go much more smoothly.
We aspire to evolve the entire S&F ecosystem into a DDO (a Deliberately Developmental Organization). This means that people who start working with S&F become better. Better communicators, better coders, more loving and involved partners, more proactive citizens, etc. That is the goal of the DDO approach – to immerse yourself in the full experience of being a human (with good and bad), so that you can bring your best self wherever you go, including at work.
The third aspect of our mission is that we want to turn S&F into an incubator and accelerator of all kinds of products. We want to become more than just a service company that does ordinary work to order. Ideally, in 5 years only half of the revenue will be service-related at S&F, and the second half will be product revenue.
To a new person in the company
I tell our new hires: don't be afraid. It may be very difficult with us, but it will also be very interesting. My wish is for those who come to the company to understand that it is possible to upgrade – to better – yourself in our environment. I also want new hires to adjust to the fact that they need to improve themselves here. If you are not improving yourself, our partnership will not work; if you are, you’ll feel right at home. If you want to punch code, punch a clock and get a paycheck, S&F is not the company for you. If you want your job to be an integral part of an amazing life, we should talk.